“People say I have an honest face, but now I make it like stone,” Constantine says.
For once, he goes rocklike, hard to pull off with his freckles. Constantine is a student of mine. I ask him how much the babushkas begging in the metro stations make.
“Ten rubles here, twenty there,” he says. “It adds up—to over a thousand a day.”
Later, I check out Constantine’s claim that the Mafia beats up the babushkas for a cut of their thousand-ruble—roughly $40—takes.
“They used to,” says Zena, a manager at my school. "There used to be lots of grupirovki. For example, one group would go to a shop owner, demand protection money. But when another Mafia group would come around, the owner would tell them whom he was paying the money to. The groups would then sort it out among themselves.
“But it’s not nearly so dangerous now,” Zena says. “Now, there’s only the government.”
It’s a few days after Russia’s “Why bother?” election, when Putin’s handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev—described by Anna Politkovskaya, the murdered journalist, as a man with a small head and a big ass—stood in Red Square before the Hitleresque youth group Nashi (Ours). But the election, with its reports of ballot-box stuffing and voter intimidation (“Vote if you want to keep your job”), had been decided long ago by the Kremlin’s elimination of any serious opposition candidates via “legal” technicalities.
I’m in Moscow to teach for one of the English business schools that have spasmed up in the city over the last year, schools with names like Be Free. Constantine is one of three students locked up in a conference room for two months. If the trio manages to pass a battery of tests in English and accounting standards, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the largest auditing firm in the world, will hire them as assistant managers.
Naturally, my first question to them was if their ordeal was a formality. It isn’t. They are also judged on team spirit.
I don’t have to ask if Russia’s Brave New World of Capitalist Terror is working. “Da nyet” (Not a chance) rings loud and clear. Russia’s oil wealth—barrel price quadrupled during Putin’s regime—has made rich “10,000 people at this time,” says Andrei, a programmer.
“August 7, 1998,” says Oleg, another student. “It was like a war zone. Everyone ran to the shops to buy something before the ruble became worthless. It went down in value 30 times in a week. But then it stayed like that for three years and we got used to it.”
Now, a trickle-down has allowed bargain shopping in the city’s new megamalls and hypermarkets, the only sector in which the Kremlin has not cut out foreign owners.
“People do seem more relaxed,” admits Anya, a teacher who has returned after an absence of 10 years. Anya owns a flat in a towering Stalin-era apartment block, but her tenants can’t afford a new place—not at $1,000 a room. “What can I do?” Anya says. “I can’t kick out a whole family.”
Most people are stacked up like my friend Anya, with entire families occupying single rooms within a flat. Hence, the young lovers smooching on the metro escalators. Another young teacher tells me she’s looking to supplement her monthly public-school salary of $400 by taking on evening classes. Retirees are the hardest hit; they’re trying to survive on their pensions, which were raised to just $135 a month. Hence, the babushkas standing in the cold all day, selling cabbage slaw from cardboard-box stands.
“TsUM is nothing but an exhibition hall,” grumbles Yulia, another teacher. As we walk by TsUM, Moscow’s grand department store, now stocked with designer labels and luxury items, we peer down the empty aisles.
“Russia has little men,” says Iena, a secretary at the school. Once the language confusion is sorted, I realize Iena means that alcoholism accounts for the few men available.
There are, however, many men, army uniforms pinned over their leg stumps, begging alongside the babushkas.
Da nyet to them. Putin’s been too busy renationalizing Russia’s oil and gas industries—companies that were auctioned off in the ’90s to the “oligarchs,” thugs who borrowed public money hastily deposited in private banks. Western investors had their fun, too, in “democratic” Russia. But now that Russian oil is back in state control, former partners like Shell and ExxonMobil find themselves facing trumped-up charges of environmental violations.
Of course, when in doubt, stage a war against terror. “They talk about terrorism in the south,” says Akhmed, a black-haired, thin-faced teacher at Moscow University. “But I’m from the south and I wonder, ‘Where are the terrorists?’ Bush and Putin—they’re two sides of the same coin.”
But with the dollar in free fall, Russia still looks rosy to foreign investors, and this is where my students, prospective employees of the “internationals,” get crunched.
Along about our third week together, my trio at PricewaterhouseCoopers gets time off from English. I ask what they’ll be doing over the next five days. Learning international auditing standards, they sigh. How do they differ from Russian standards? “Well, before in Russia, it was never necessary to report to owners, only to do tax audits,” Valentyn says. “But now that foreign partners are involved we have to report to stockholders.”
The Kremlin has hauled PwC into court three times, accusing the accounting firm of producing false audits for Yukos, the giant Russian company that controls more oil than Kuwait. PwC denies all charges, but, after losing at the third hearing, they paid a 290-million-ruble fine. (Yukos’s former managers, already in jail on charges of embezzlement, claim they are victims of calling for transparency.)
I’ve also got three classes at JPMorgan Chase’s Moscow office, where, as I’m ushered into a conference room, a plastic visitor pass dangling from my collar, I ask Irina, the human-resources assistant, if the company has had English classes before.
“Oh, yes. We used to hire the British Council,” she says, “but there were … um, licensing problems.”
In January, Putin shut down the British Council, claiming that the agency had violated its not-for-profit status. But it’s yet another governmental dispute in which the ordinary Russian loses. Russia has refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the main suspect in the 2006 radioactive poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. Litvinenko, a former Federal Security Bureau agent, had accused the Russian secret service of killing over 300 people in the 1999 “terrorist” Moscow apartment bombings. (Litvinenko also claimed that the FSB tested poison gas on Chechen children.)
Once I get over the shock of realizing I have a job because a spy has been killed, I take in the barely suppressed panic at JPMorgan Moscow. “I’m lucky if I get out of here by 10,” says Natalya, a delicate blonde with huge eyes.
Unlimited hours, limited pay. Is there a minimum wage in Russia? “Yes, $30 a month,” says Sergey.
Saddest of all is my individual tutorial, somewhat of an emergency case. Tatyana meets me in the marbled-floor reception of PwC’s Riverside office. Eight a.m. and already she’s sweating. She’s in her mid-30s, with six years’ experience working for Russian auditing companies. She now heads the department that audits media. “But I never had to speak English before. Now, I say nothing.”
She leads me through a warren of hallways, through acres of cubicle gulags, spreadsheets glowing screen-green on the faces of kids who look shocked dumb with bad luck. I spy a teddy bear in one cubicle, a photo of George Clooney tacked up in another.
“Coffee?” Tatyana asks. In the floor’s kitchen, we punch the cappuccino dispenser. Plop, fizz. She, too, complains of the long hours. “At night, I can’t think. Only sleep. Not eat.”
I suggest that the long hours may be because PwC is British-owned. “No, the British people tell me they are used to leaving at 5. I think it’s the American style,” she says.
Tatyana is also responsible for interviewing the kids outside our conference room. University graduates, she tells me, with maths degrees and some English. “The problem is the high turnover,” she says. PwC’s entry-level position pays $500 a month, with a possible promotion to assistant manager after several years.
“But for each one who leaves there are many to replace him,” she says.
Tatyana and I hunker down, plow through units on branding, on dealing with change in the business world. “The biggest change in my life? Working for PwC,” she sighs. She’s already passed the 14 exams needed for her international audit license. “It took me a year, every weekend.”
Now, with license in hand, is she concerned about PwC’s role in monitoring Russian companies?
“Of course I’m worried,” Tatyana says. "Russian tax code is very complicated—for each item, you have to provide long explanations. The explanations can be read in many ways.
“And, depending on what they want, they choose.”
As for our lessons, she only needs someone to listen to her nervous English and, after a few meetings, she flowers. “I got a call at 3 a.m. from a Guatemalan friend. But I don’t even think—I am speaking English. At 3 a.m.!”
I don’t know whether to smile or weep.